A Virgin Among the Living Dead / Among the Living Dead / Christina, Princess of Eroticism / Zombie 4: A Virgin Among the Living Dead / Une Vierge chez les Morts Vivants / Christina, Princesse de L’Érotsime (1971/1973/1980) ***
Though she had worked for him as early as 1960, Soledad Miranda’s first major role for Jesus Franco was in his turn-of-the-70’s Christopher Lee vehicle Count Dracula. She very rapidly became the director’s favorite actress, and the frequently heard description of her as Franco’s muse is no exaggeration. However, she appeared in only eight of Franco’s dauntingly numerous movies, for she was crushed to death in a car wreck in 1970, shortly after completing The Devil Came from Akasava. She and her husband had been driving to West Germany at the time, where they were to meet with Franco to begin work on a string of films for producer Artur Brauner, who had been impressed by the reception that greeted Vampyros Lesbos at its West Berlin premiere. Anyone unclear on what exactly is meant by the phrase “artistic temperament” should look to how Franco greeted Miranda’s death for a sterling example of that character type in action. The director was more than simply devastated. He became obsessed with his vanished starlet, and was haunted by her memory for years. When Lina Romay appeared in Franco’s life three years later, at least part of the instantaneous and overwhelming attraction he felt for her stemmed from his impression that Romay was “a little bit of a reincarnation” of Soledad Miranda. Weirder still, on at least one occasion, Franco is reported to have abandoned a shooting location because Miranda came to him in a dream and told him that the site he had originally chosen was for some reason unsuitable.
Now perhaps you’re wondering why I’m blathering on about Soledad Miranda as the opening gambit in a review of a movie in which she doesn’t appear, even via stock footage. The reason is that A Virgin Among the Living Dead, Franco’s first independent project after fulfilling his contract for Artur Brauner and one of the most intensely personal films the director ever made, is difficult to interpret as anything other than an extended meditation upon Miranda’s ugly and premature demise. Significantly, it was begun under the working title The Night the Stars Died (Miranda had been nothing if not Franco’s star performer); it was shot in Miranda’s native Portugal; and it tells a Carnival of Souls-like story about a beautiful, young woman journeying to a faraway place that seems to offer her unprecedented riches and happiness, where she finds instead an entryway into the domain of the dead.
A Virgin Among the Living Dead’s Miranda surrogate is Christina Benton (Christina von Blanc, of The Dead Are Alive and Wedding Night Report). This won’t become clear until later, but she has lived all her life in London, effectively an orphan— which is to say that her mother died when she was very young while her father, Ernesto Pablo Reiner (Paul Müller, from The Devil’s Commandment and The Arena), remained on the continent, supporting her generously but never so much as sending her a photograph of himself to foster personal involvement in the girl’s life. Now Ernesto has died, and Christina’s Uncle Howard (Franco regular Howard Vernon, also seen in The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus and The Diabolical Dr. Z) has summoned her to the family estate at Monteserrate. Christina is to take a room in the village just outside the valley where Monteserrate stands, and wait for Howard’s manservant, Basilio (Franco himself, acting under the name “Jesus Manera”), to come pick her up. This strikes the innkeeper with whom Christina lodges as somewhat strange, for so far as she knew, Monteserrate has been abandoned for years, and no one lives anywhere down in the valley. However, the doctor (Nicole Franco— no relation, to the best of my knowledge— from Midnight Party and Obscene Mirror) who is also rooming at the inn counsels Christina to disregard anything she hears in the village. Christina has a letter from her uncle, right? Then obviously the locals must be mistaken about Monteserrate.
Basilio arrives at the inn to collect Christina almost immediately after her talk with the doctor, and it’s probably just past dawn when they hit the road for Monteserrate. It’s a long drive, and Basilio is incapable of normal speech, so Christina has plenty of time to notice the strangeness of the valley where her family dwells. She perceives a dreamlike quality in everything around her— an untraceable melancholia in the way the sunlight strikes the trees, a subtle wrongness in the scent and color of the flowers, a flock of vultures circling (off-camera) overhead despite there being no sign of any such birds in the surrounding countryside. Nor is the scene that confronts her upon her arrival any less peculiar. Uncle Howard’s joviality seems out of place considering that his brother is dead and his sister-in-law, Herminia (Christina’s youthful stepmother), is poised to follow him within hours at most. Howard’s wife, Abigail (Rosa Palomar, of The Demons and Devil’s Island Lovers), gives off a disconcerting air of cunning, as if she stood to gain somehow from Herminia’s impending death. And Carmenze (Britt Nichols, from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein and The Killer with a Thousand Eyes)— apparently some sort of cousin— is just all-around weird, turning her head to intercept what was supposed to be Christina’s conventional kiss on the cheek with her lips, and wistfully observing that she wishes she were “following Herminia’s path.”
From the moment of Christina’s arrival at Monteserrate, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish between fantasy (or dreams or hallucinations) and reality— this is plainly deliberate, but knowing that doesn’t make the ensuing hour any easier to follow on a scene-by-scene basis. While waiting around for Reiner’s lawyer to arrive for the reading of the will, Christina begins an abortive friendship with a village boy, gets perved on while skinny dipping by a pair of middle-aged louts (one of whom turns out to be the long-awaited attorney!), and discovers a derelict chapel dedicated to St. Cecile, where an apparently dying pilgrim insistently tells her that the Chateau Monteserrate is both uninhabited and accursed. She receives frequent visitations from a spectral blind woman who calls herself Linda (Linda Hastretier, from The Sexy Darlings and Dr. M Strikes), one of them coming when Christina accidentally walks in on Carmenze enjoying a vampiric lesbian interlude with the sightless ghost. She has a mammoth ebony phallus appear inexplicably on the floor of her bedroom. Depending on which version you watch (more on this later), she might get raped repeatedly by various characters or chased around the mansion grounds by a pack of ludicrously ineffectual zombies. And most importantly, she is tormented by visions of her hanged father, who appears to have some urgent transdimensional message to give her regarding her true heritage and her connection to someone he calls the Queen of Darkness (Anne Libert, from Diary of a Nymphomaniac and Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein). In the end, we see that none of the events following Christina’s arrival at the inn correspond strictly to reality, and that the villagers’ take on Monteserrate is a lot closer to the truth than it seems at first glance. Normally, I’d regard that point as a major spoiler, but since Eurocine decided to release The Night the Stars Died as A Virgin Among the Living Dead instead, I figure the damage has already been done.
Even within the tangled and confusing Franco filmography, A Virgin Among the Living Dead earns distinction for the headaches it has given both fans and scholars over the years since its release. The film may never have seen theatrical release at all in the form Franco intended, for Eurocine found it almost impossible to interest exhibitors in it. As producer Daniel Lesoeur told Video Watchdog, “Every theater owner asked, ‘Have you some erotic movies?’ We said, ‘Well, we have A Virgin Among the Living Dead.’ They said, ‘No, no! We want erotic movies!’” Consequently, the studio went back to the drawing board, removed most of the more overt horror material from the film, added some hastily mounted sex scenes (possibly with hardcore footage in some markets), and relaunched A Virgin Among the Living Dead as Christina, Princess of Eroticism. This appears to have happened around 1973. Then, in 1980, Eurocine resurrected the movie again, reinstating the previous title in the hope of cashing in on the post-Dawn of the Dead zombie craze. The extraneous sex scenes were clipped out, and their places were taken by new footage (shot by Jean Rollin, who had directed Zombie Lake for Eurocine at about the same time) in which Christina is menaced by then-standard Romero-style ghouls. Rollin’s zombie inserts would have been awful enough anyway, but the problems were exacerbated by the fact that Christina von Blanc was no longer the virginal-looking ingenue she had been nine years earlier. Rollin was forced to use a double, and to take great care to ensure that her face never appeared on the screen! There was also a nudity-free television edit (it must have been about half an hour long…), and one gets the impression that no two home video markets received exactly the same cut of the movie. At this point, any attempt to assemble a definitive version must first surmount the obstacle of determining what exactly “definitive” might mean.
Image Entertainment’s answer was to disregard everything that happened after 1971, and to use Franco’s recently discovered director’s cut for their EuroShock Collection release of A Virgin Among the Living Dead, appending Rollin’s zombies and the anonymously staged sex scenes from Christina, Princess of Eroticism as a bonus feature. It was probably the smartest thing to do, under the circumstances— although it would have been nice to present the extra scenes with sufficient context to indicate where in the film they had been inserted. With no artifacts of studio meddling to drag it down, A Virgin Among the Living Dead startlingly reveals itself to be perhaps Franco’s best horror film since the early 1960’s. While it is no less nonsensical than the typical 70’s Franco production, it makes carefully considered use of its defiance of logic. Monteserrate is a place where the fabric of reality is thin and flimsy, and a disordered and circuitous jumble of mutually contradictory and internally unreasonable set-pieces seems like just about the best possible way to convey that idea. Earlier, I compared A Virgin Among the Living Dead to Carnival of Souls, but a close examination reveals an equally important kinship between this movie and Vampyr. Like that film’s Allan Gray, Christina is an almost totally passive participant in the weird goings-on that engulf her, seemingly helpless to do much about it as her circumstances become more and more threateningly incomprehensible. In such a context, another of what would normally be the movie’s weaknesses— Christina von Blanc’s extremely limited abilities as an actress— is converted into an asset. The horror of A Virgin Among the Living Dead is purely that of a nightmare, with its protagonist completely powerless to act toward either defense against or escape from a peril which is impervious even to basic understanding. Von Blanc’s dithering performance captures the mood perfectly. A lethargically paced horror film with more sex than scares, in which the plot begins collapsing into itself at about the quarter-hour mark, is obviously not for everyone, but A Virgin Among the Living Dead has much to offer if you’re feeling adventurous.